Altars, Altar Cloths, and Our Covenant to Mourn

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All images: LDSLacemaker.com

Draped neatly on nearly every Mormon temple altar I have ever seen is a white crocheted covering. I had always assumed that such coverings were a quaint nod to our pioneer heritage, those skilled Irish, Dutch, Welsh and Scandinavian hands that provided delicate handiwork to adorn my faith’s earliest temples. It wasn’t until loss ripped through me with H-Bomb force that my eyes were opened to see a deeper meaning.

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It was a Thursday evening, one week to the hour from the tragic drowning accident that took our eldest son’s life, when my husband Randall and I, weak with grief and staggering under the molten lead weight of shock and sorrow, went to the LDS temple so that Randall could do what is a common but crowning rite in our faith; he would serve as proxy for our 18-year-old’s posthumous “endowment”, a bestowal of supreme blessings and promises conditioned upon faithfulness to the gospel. We happened to also be asked in that session to serve as something we call “the witness couple,” meaning that we represented all others in attendance as we approached and knelt at an altar, the central feature of the room in which temple goers are seated and instructed. Freshly amputated as we felt, we scarcely had the energy to get up and approach the altar or even kneel at it, but managed to by bracing ourselves—torsos against and elbows upon—that holy, lace-covered altar.

I recall crying quietly, head hung. Dark spots of dampness pooled on lace geometry, I can see them still, and I can also hear the Spirit telling me, “This suffering is a similitude.” My heart cramped. “And this,” referring to the altar covering I was wetting with the blood of my soul, “is the community of Saints.” I focused on that handiwork throughout that evening, seeing it all as if for the first time. And in each of the subsequent temples I’ve visited in the years since our life was imploded, I have reflected intensely on the altar covering’s meaning.

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What do I now see in those soft altars and in dainty altar cloths? I see these ten hard truths and endless thunderous power.

  • I see that life is an altar, not a stage, as I had believed before I knew that I had zero control over life. That all my efforts to do the right would not and could not protect me from death in all its iterations. That God does not, in the strictest sense, protect us from life, but provides us with exactly enough strength through Christ that sorrow be transformed into joy, suffering into strength, death—the greatest evil— into life, and even life eternal.
  • I see that our Christian covenant before anything else—before white shirts and ties, food storage, memorizing scripture, hosting elaborate youth theme nights—is one of connectivity, companionship, co-mourning and compassion. It is about stitching ourselves to each other in love. Alma, an ancient prophet featured in the Book of Mormon, offered this distilled truth when he taught that Christ’s disciples live to bear others’ burdens, mourn with them, comfort them, and to stand in for God in all things, times and places. (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 18:8-9)

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  • That any other expression of faith than the self-sacrificial and the other-rescuing risks becoming parochial, nothing more than navel-gazing, and ultimately lacks the substance that will create of our simple single threads Zion, and of our threadbare or shot-through selves, offspring truly like our Divine Parents.

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  • That extending our arms to one another knots — or knits—our hearts together, as we read in Mosiah 18:21. This intertwinedness results in a human fabric where each tatted patch represents a tattered and torn someone who is, through intimate, single stitches, held in our community and in turn in a greater, cosmic cloth.
  • That knitting our hearts to one another doesn’t require that we be perfectly whole to begin with. In fact, those altar cloths provide an aerial view of all our broken bodies and punctured spirits. It’s in our reaching outward to catch others or to be caught by others as if with a fine crochet hook, that we are caught by God. The parallel miracle appears when, in our human reciprocal catching and knitting, God knits and mends our individual broken and punctured hearts.

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  • That our brokenness, while making us feel acutely poorer and more fragile, frayed or shot through, also provides open spaces where we can be caught by God. Sewn closer to God, we are far richer and exponentially more robust than we had been before.
  • That such torn-to-pieces-hood, (William James’ translation of the German, “Zerissenheit”), is what we came to earth to know. We can, in our experiences with torn-to-pieces-hood rail and resist, rebel and rage. But we can also recognize that holes, not wholeness, invite holiness. Spaciousness invites the Spirit, and in His wounds we are healed, made whole.
  • That altars are mourning benches, and mourning benches are places of reverence. When we seek to meet someone in their grief, we are treading on sacred ground. This call to compassion—to suffering alongside another—is not a time for perfection, but a moment of supernal authenticity. Any self-consciousness and perfectionist leanings do nothing to help the grieving. We bond on our broken, not on our polished, edges.

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  • That we ought to bear burdens first. (Mow the grief-stricken’s lawn, wash their car, take their children for three days.) Mourn next. (Jesus wept.) Comfort later. (“Comfort” means con+fortis, or “with strength.” Bring all your strengths.) And witness of God (roll out your sermon) only after you have done all of the above, and for much longer than you had ever imagined necessary.
  • And I have learned that mourning, like kneeling at that altar, requires silence. The Jews sit seven days of shiva. We can begin with at least that. We need only to show up and sit in shared stillness. Indeed, altars are places of listening more than places of lengthy discourses. And real listening is more than a polite or professional act. It is total, imaginative focus requiring physical effort and divine inspiration. Listening to those who are suffering will teach all of us essential lessons in our shared humanity.

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As Nicolas Wolterstorff, Yale Divinity School theology professor and bereaved father writes about altars and mourning benches:

“What do you say to someone who is suffering?

Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.” Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit [or kneel] beside me on my mourning bench.”

—Wolterstorff , Lament for a Son, 34

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How have loss and grief stitched you to your God?

What have others done for you during times of acute grief that has knit your heart to theirs?

What has it meant for you to mourn with or comfort others?

What is to be learned from the seemingly endless landscape of mortal suffering?

If you are LDS and attend the temple, what has that temple-attendance done for you in your anguish and isolation?

 

 

 

 

 

30 thoughts on “Altars, Altar Cloths, and Our Covenant to Mourn

  1. Profound words. Thank you for sharing. As we visit the temple this week I will have a new perspective to ponder.

  2. Beautiful words for a beautiful piece of handwork. Gives me new insights to the symbolism of the alter in the temple. I love this. Thank you.

    • Lisa, I”m so glad to hear this. I am a little envious and in awe of these skilled lace-makers. Wow, its takes too much calculating for me. But I am a fan and can share their gifts this way. I’m grateful to them all.

  3. Oh, Melissa! This is beautiful. I didn’t know that you had lost a child. I can’t even begin to imagine! Sending love to you and gratitude for these deep and tender words.

    It’s lovely to find your blog. A friend posted a link to this entry saying how it spoke to her soul. (I don’t know if you remember me, I’m Mary Jensen’s daughter from the 24th Ward. I’ve just recently moved back to Provo and have the pleasure of running into your folks ever so often.)

    • Martha, my friend! But OF COURSE I remember you, in concrete and beautiful detail. Yes, my blog (and my books) tell the fuller story of our great loss. It has been a terrible and cruel but also tremendous and benevolent tutorial for our whole family. We are still learning.
      And I’m happy you have found my writing and grateful we can reconnect. Blessing to you, always.

  4. I love the image of an arial view of the altar with all the holes, but joining together to form something whole and beautiful!
    After a difficult loss, I was reminded of our baptismal covenants and how I had been a recipient of mourning with those that mourn and comforting those in need of comfort. It brought me peace to see my friends fulfilling those covenants through me. My own losses, and being the recipient of such love on more than one occassion, have helped me be more open and desirous to give that love and comfort to others. I think that is one of the lessons that we are meant to learn through our own grief – we lift and strengthen each other through our own experiences and the empathy we gain from them. And, truly, my heart is knit to those who loved me. I remember and cherish their words and actions individually.

  5. Pingback: Binding Our Hearts at the Altars of the Temple | Meridian Magazine

  6. Hello Melissa. I have read some of your writings… My son was killed in a motorcycle crash March of 2017. He was 17. At the beginning of the post here you mentioned that only a week after your son’s passing, you went to the temple for him – I have been waiting as I thought it was a year. Sadly, my husband and other 17 year old son are not active in the church right now, and I will have to have someone else do the work – but now I am prompted to ask my bishop. Thank you.

    • Kati-
      First, I’m sickened that you have had to absorb this terrible, shocking blow. And so recently…That first year, ooooooooh……It is a hard, holy incubation.
      Because our Parker had so recently received the Melchizedek priesthood (the March before his accident, by the way) and had even more recently than that worthiness interviews with his leaders, we were permitted to make that choice to do that further work for him immediately. I hope that whoever is able to do that work for your son will have a powerful experience of his presence.
      Praying that you will be surrounded with strength and inspiration as you find your way forward. Blessings to you, Kati.

  7. I too lost a son…….4 months ago, on Fathers Day. It was an accidental drug overdose. He had served a mission and married in the temple. My soul was broken in such a way that I realized that if God asked, I would give my own life in exchange for his; I would willingly pay for his every sin, failing, and shortcoming eternally, if my son could have the complete forgiveness and grace of God. But, my soul is too flawed. Imperfect. His price has already been paid by the ONLY perfect ONE who could carry the burden of our sins and death. I have come to know the love and goodness of God……….they WHY. I’ve come to love God more than ever and the sacrifice of my Savior is so much more meaningful. I have hope of all good things, and know that His grace continues into the spirit world for those who seek Him there. And so I have found peace in God.

    The intricacy of the crocheted alter clothes brought this thought to my mind today, as I read your lovely piece.
    We are united……..tied together as families; generations united with generations and with all the children of God through these temple ordinances that bestow and endow us with the power of the Priesthood. With that power we bless our generations past. With that power they are able to serve under God’s authority to bless us while we travel this mortal path. The sealing power of the priesthood is like each stitch in a crocheted alter cloth, uniting and tying the family of God in eternal union with God.

    • Dear Raeann-
      Only four months ago….In grief time, that is not even half a breath. Oh, I hope you are able to stand and walk and sleep and eat. That first year can be so, so inexpressibly heavy.
      But then … also unspeakably full of light. I see you are experiencing exactly that.
      And the manner in which these children of ours lose their lives plays into the nature of our grief. Drug overdoses I have learned, are so brutal for parents to bear. I am so so sorry for the complexity you are dealing with, and hope that you are seeing (as I sense you are) that ‘This, too, is a similitude.” All losses can point out hearts to Christ. In that juncture of feeling that love ,that sustaining presence, that tender and intimate care, we can begin to see and understand things otherwise beyond us. And yes, yes, the ordinances and covenants stitch us to one another, past and present and future, and ultimately, to God.
      I love your perspective and depth. Thank you!

  8. Beautiful. Thank you–and hugs to you, from this complete stranger who found her way here through a shared and re-shared FB post.

    (A side note: photos 4 and 8 are done in tatting, not crocheting, and the beautiful hand-carved wooden tatting shuttles shown require a level of skill to work with that this fiber artist does not have.)

  9. We share some things in common. I lost a daughter to SIDS. Each of the laces at the temple has a story of sacrifice woven in the fibers. My daughter’s story, my story, your story– our pain, our healing….and Heaven’s hand working in all of it. The Lord is the great playwright. I’m thankful to be a part of his work. I’m so glad that the testimonies borne in thread touch your heart as they do mine.

    -Angela Rockwood, ldslacemaker.com

    • Angela-

      You know, I scoured your website and was touched by the wisdom and gentleness there. Beyond the handiwork you have finished, your photos ,stories, explanations and tutoring have also beautified and embellished many lives. Thank you, sincerely.

  10. This was wonderful. I also had the experience of losing a child. It was heartbreaking but I think you described it wonderfully. You asked the question: “What has the temple done for you?” Months prior to her death, I was attending the temple weekly. This does not normally happen since I have other small children. I felt the debilitating pains when she passed away but within 2 weeks I was able to be me again. It was hard and took time but I believe it was from attending the temple that I could regain myself so quickly. I felt peace. I knew and know where she is and that I will see her again.

    • Thank you for coming here and sharing that experience. For me, your story is proof of something beyond human will, determination, support or resilience. It is God’s power. You’ve received it and that was all sheer blessing. Beautiful.

  11. My Eternal Companion Sam Caswell passed through the Veil on 29th April this year and now even 6 months on – I find it hard at night and on Saturdays around 11.15am. But the Gospel and my Calling has kept me going – I am a daughter of a loving Heavenly Father who watches over me and I can be Strong knowing we will be together forever. We celebrate our 19th Wedding Anniversary on 28th November. My brothers and Sisters in the Gospel have been so good to me as have my own siblings. I love you my Darling Sam, Love from your Eternal Companion Gillxxxx

  12. Melissa…I am trying to figure out how we have not met. Our lives have crisscrossed around the globe for decades. I too served a German speaking mission (Germany, Munich 1985 – 86). I have worked in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and a bit in France (1991 – 2005). With my precious husband we have lived in Japan, China and Taiwan (2010 – Present). We are currently in Beijing (our second stint in China). I studied German Literature at the UofU and Design at BYU after my mission. For too many years, I have been slowly working on a Masters in Art History.

    This beautiful entry on alter covers, has touched my heart deeply. You have articulated some precious truths and opened keys to symbolism of these beautiful, handworks of love. Thank you!

    Kym

    • It seems that on about five occasions, then, we have missed stumbling into one another one another only by months. My husband was teaching all the German-speaking missionaries at the MTC from 1983 onward, so you might have met him. And depending on when you entered the MTC, I began teaching there after in June of 1985. My husband and I both taught there together for over 2 years, heading off to grad work and teaching in Vienna in 1987/8.

      Thank you for the kind words on this piece on Altar Cloths. I continue to learn from these sacred symbols.

      Alles Liebe und Gute!

  13. Hi Melissa. I heard you speak in Munich a month ago at the singles conference. I love the above. I have often wondered about the crocheted altar-toppers, what incredible symbolism. The temple is indeed a place of solace and healing. I have been carried by others through my challenges (divorce after 21 years of marriage in the temple and 3 children). It has been wonderful the love and kindness given. I try to give that to others. I lost my Dad 2 years ago, he was the biggest inspiration to me in my whole life. I take what he taught me and use it every day to try to be braver, better. Thanks for all your beautiful writing – I’ve read a few of your posts tonight. I’ll be back for more x

    • Rachel-
      That was a lovely and spirit-filled conference. I’m so glad you were there, adding to the richness and sense of cohesion.

      And I am sorry to hear about your divorce (a death in itself), and your dear father. These losses humble and realign us with the true way, which is seeing mortality as finite, brief. That can propel us to greater mindfulness and deeper investment in what is timeless. I believe that relationships are just that: Eternal.

      Thank you for your strength in the face of harsh realities. Your example inspires me.

  14. I am a knitter and crocheter, and have often thought about making an altar cloth. Every time I go to the Temple, my eyes are drawn to the beautiful white cloths and I ponder how each one is made, how each stitch was created and never knew why. Everything about the Temple is Holy and symbolic with many layers. I am grateful for your perspective. It might be time to crochet one of these sacred cloths…

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